Seattle's winter triggers recollections of Italian rodeo

If you think the word "Italy" is synonymous with "Tuscany," you would not be alone. In fact Seattleites can be as sure to bump into an acquaintance while visiting San Gimignano as they would on Maui. But Italy is long and skinny and is really only an arbitrary cobbling of regions through the vision of Garabaldi.

The weather differences are extreme. The southern tip has scorching summer heat and barely a winter to speak of, the far north boasts a cooler, refreshing summer air and snowy mountain peaks all year round. In fact, culturally a Sicilian has about as much in common with a Venetian as a New Yorker has with Montanan. But having said that, New Yorkers have a fascination with the country cowboy and the rough and tumble life of the rodeo.

So, here is the Italian Alpine equivalent of the rodeo that I experienced several months ago during a family trip to the region - "La Bataille delle Reines" or The Battle of the Queen's. Yes, they are just cows.

Just as you can imagine the origins of the American rodeo evolving from the average cowboy bored and looking for some fun by riding an unbroken bronco, it's easy to see how the Bataille started: Italian Alpine shepherds betting with their neighboring shepherds on who has the best cow with a challenge set up to find the truth. The natural testosterone response was to rally together a more formal contest and, presto, it's now a spectator sport.

Italy's Savoy region is a former duchy that circles the mountaintops of northwestern Italy, southeastern France and western Switzerland. As Italy formed in 1861, these tightknit communities found themselves citizens of different countries. However, the mountain peaks that separate them have not stopped them from sharing customs and heritage.

As a result, you can find the Bataille delle Reines in all three regions, although no travel brochure will list it. You will have to keep your eyes peeled for posters pasted along the Italian city walls.

When I have international guests visiting Seattle, I always hope their timing coincides with the Ellensburg or Puyallup fair rodeo, for, as corny as it sounds, the cowboys are living testament to a lifestyle of the past and embodiment of the American free spirit. They live hard, play hard and have a tight moral code.

In the same way I enjoy the hokey little Italian cow-fights (err, if you can call it a fight. It's actually over when one of the two contesting cows backs off - because as a spectator sport there is so much more to it than watching the ring.)

You get to see the shy, monosyllabic farmers loosen up and chat with friends and acquaintances from neighboring valleys. This might be the one time during the year that they catch up. They smile and jovially clap each other on the back, but not in the boisterous way we think Italians do: these are people who live very solitary and understated lives.

Up at 4 a.m. to milk before herding their animals out to the high pastures to graze on alpine flowers (which they claim is the key to the sweetness of the milk), back in to milk at 4 p.m. and out to graze again until stars twinkle overhead. It is a life I could never endure, yet they would not do anything else. Those born to it that don't care for the lifestyle have long split for the cities.

Vertosan, where I caught my last Bataille, is a lush green valley sitting at 5,000 feet and carpeted with tall, spiky violet flowers that nobody ever could give me a name for. It's located roughly between the Mount Blanc Tunnel and Grand Saint Bernard Tunnel, but accessed from the Italian side. You go up a long, winding road that takes you to what you assume to be the very last village there could possibly be, then you continue on what you think could not possibly be a road, except there are tire tracks in the dirt, so you follow them.

And you follow them some more. There is no turning around since there is a sheer drop on one side and a steep mountain on the other. You pray that you will not meet a car coming the other direction because you can't imagine what you would do.

Once arrived, I sat in nature's amphitheatre with a 10-Euro meal of polenta, veal carbonada and Barbera wine. Below me an informal ring full of cows with handwritten numbers all over their backs were doing all sorts of strange movements that seemed to mean a great deal to the spectators and cow owners. I just relaxed and let the mix of cowbells, om-pah- pah accordion music and the ancient patois announcements of winners wash over me.

Globe trotting South End resident Jacqui James may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]